The President of a small European country was dozing on a wave bed when his platinum smartphone, resting upon his ebony nightstand, began to vibrate ever so slightly. The bed rocked his sixty-eight-year-old body so softly and delicately that he didn’t want to raise his eyelids. He just didn’t want to at all. But the smartphone kept gurgling and vibrating, which meant it had a serious reason to do so. Reaching out his swarthy hand with its short fingers, he picked up the smartphone and pressed his finger to its screen.
‘She’s been delivered, Mr. President.’
‘Ah…’ he remembered. ‘Good.’
Putting the cold device back into its place, he rubbed his face, soft from a recently taken Turkish bath, exhaled, then, with a single movement of his muscular body, got up easily from the foam-rubber wave. The President was short, squat, broad-shouldered, bald, thick-necked and big-headed; the features of his bronzed, black-browed, strong-willed face were very proper except for his small fleshy ears that looked as if they’d been haphazardly stuck onto his head. The President was garbed in nothing but a terry towel that matched the colour of his body.
Shrugging his damp towel off onto the floor, he walked into a dark-green shower room of sinewy marble. Three wide showerheads loomed up on the left, but the President didn’t move toward them, instead going over to three copper buckets hanging from chains on the right. Standing under a bucket, he pulled at a lever. The bucket began to tilt, pouring icy water over the President. Letting it wash over him, he hooted dully, shook his head, then slapped into the changing room on his strong feet. A servant was already waiting for him there. Having wiped over the President’s body, he delicately anointed it with Eau de Cologne and helped him to get dressed. Dressed in loose beige pants, a sleeveless shirt and light boots, the President left the changing room, exited the bathing and sporting complex, got behind the wheel of a one-seater electric car, and headed for the palace. A wide electric security vehicle equipped with assault rifles followed after him. The road zigzagged smoothly through a beautifully manicured park.
Beeches, firs, willows, magnolias and all kinds of juniper plants, along with enormous stones, could be seen all around. The perfectly clipped grass stood green in the midst of everything. The skeleton of a great oak, its trunk as wide as five people, swam past, entwined with hops and wild grapes. A marvellous pond with his beloved gazebo, a pair of inseparable swans, and a fountain of mythological sculptures also stretched toward them. Then an enormous flower bed, in which four gardeners were working. They stood up and bowed to the President. He nodded back at them. Having skirted around the flowerbed, the President turned onto the central alley of lindens, wide and straight. The centuries-old trees parted to reveal a stately Victorian palace behind them. As it came closer, the palace expanded hospitably. The alley ended in a circle with a cross inside of it paved in red Carpathian granite. The electric car passed the cross and stopped before the palace’s main staircase.
Standing by the entrance, guardsmen in uniforms that were scarlet, gold and violet cast their rifles over their shoulders and turned up their young faces.
Having quickly ascended the pinkish steps, the President walked through the smoothly opening doors. In the enormous, pillared vestibule, Stefan, his secretary, was waiting for him. They had already seen each other that day, so they began to move together in silence, crossed the vestibule, went up the staircase to the second floor, then went into one of the rooms. Here, a plump girl in a light summer suit was sitting on an Empire armchair. A short man in grey stood a little way off. The girl’s plump face was teary and mascara was flowing down her cheeks. There were cuffs around her chubby wrists. When she saw the President, the girl began to sob and stood up quickly, holding her shackled hands out in front of her.
‘Hello, Valeria!’ the President pronounced loudly, then suddenly furrowed his black brows. ‘No… what’s this?’
He walked over to her and jabbed his short finger into her handcuffs.
Sergei came over quickly.
‘Colonel Sheshen gave the order, Mr. President.’
The girl began to sob even louder, holding her hands out in front of her. The President turned to Stefan.
‘Put him under arrest!’
‘Sir, yes sir!’ his secretary replied, pressed his smartphone to his ear, then stepped to the side.
‘Well, what, what, what is this, I’m asking you?!!’ the President grabbed the girl by her steel-petrified hands. ‘Idiots, such idiots! What is this, you cudgel?!!’
The man in grey stood at attention.
‘What’re you standing there for, imbecile? Take ‘em off!’ the President barked at him.
The man in grey took off the girl’s handcuffs. She began to sob more loudly, covering her face with her hands.
‘Valeria… Valeria…’ the President mumbled, then took a pack of paper tissue out of his pocket, held out a couple, and, removing the girl’s plump fingers from her weeping face, began to wipe it clean. ‘God knows what they were thinking… forgive them, forgive my thugs… idiots, I mean, they’re just imbeciles… sit down… take a seat, please…’
He sat her down in the armchair.
‘Bring her some water!’
They brought some water. With glass in hand, the President bent over the weeping girl.
‘Drink, my sweet. Drink and calm down.’
Valeria took a drink of water. He was wiping her face off attentively.
‘Everything, absolutely everything is behind you… there won’t be any more idiots… So, like, let’s get out of here. Are you hungry from the road?’
The girl snuffled out another sob.
‘Hungry… of course you are! Set the table for us in the lesser dining room and be quick about it!’
Soon, they were sitting in a spacious dining room with arched windows overlooking the park. Classical palace paintings were hanging on the walls.
The girl had come to her senses, but the eyes etched into her plump face were very swollen and her eyelids were red. The servants covered the table over entirely with cold appetisers, opened a bottle of champagne, filled two glasses, then, having placed the bottle into a silver bucket, withdrew.
After taking a sip of champagne, the President put down his glass and shook his big head.
‘My darling Valeria, I’m so ashamed… you can’t imagine…’
‘I mean… it’s no biggie…’ she sighed, her full bosom rocking forwards.
‘Whaddaya mean no biggie! The State Security Service spat in the President’s face! With a juicy smack! And I won’t let the spit just stay there! That Sheshen… he’s a real… well, never mind… screw him. You’re alright?’
‘Yes, thank you very much.’
She took a sip from her glass.
She drank more.
The President picked up a warm crab roll with chopsticks, dipped it into sauce, then put it into his mouth and began to chew. His massive lower jaw moved energetically and shifted the greyish, ruffled hair upon his head.
‘I only want one thing,’ he continued as he chewed. ‘That you… mmm… you brilliant incomparable thing… that you not hold a grudge against me.’
‘I… it’s no biggie…’ she made a conciliatory gesture with her hand.
‘You’ve known me for a long time. So I hope you’ll understand.’
She was silent.
‘But if you don’t eat, you’re gonna offend me!’ he growled playfully and slammed his palm against the table.
Smiling exhaustedly, she served herself some crab salad.
Abruptly pushing his plate away, the President clasped his hands together.
‘My darling Valeria, you can’t even imagine how hastily our world’s changing. How yesterday’s understandings and attitudes shift and are erased. Economies are crumbling, but that’s nothing compared to the collapse of prin-ci-ples! Moral principles, business principles, international principles… That which was built with such difficulty over the course of a century, that which was adjusted and tested – it collapses in a single day. All of it! It crumbles into dust that gets blown straight to hell. A question: who’s to blame? Nobody!’
He spread his arms out over the table with a smile.
‘Nobody! There’s nobody to blame! As euro-bureaucrats, may they rot in hell, say: circumstances of force majeure. The Chinese infected the world with Covid and millions perished. Who’s to blame? Nobody! The concepts of marriage and family are torn to shreds. Who’s to blame? Nobody! Millions of criminal illegal immigrants freely cross the borders of Europe. Who’s to blame? Nobody! Circumstances of force majeure.’
He sighed and clasped his hands together. The nodes of his cheekbones jutted forth upon his swarthy face.
‘Twenty years ago, the people put their trust in me. Why? Because I had principles. I knew the difference between white and black. And I’ve dug my heels in on that difference. But even before I came onto the scene, my people knew what was white and what was black. That’s why they put their trust in me. Europe knew this. And what’s happening now? A week ago, we had the Balkan Summit at Lake Balaton. We discussed the future of Europe. We argued. A lot. And I suddenly asked: and what does truth mean to you, gentlemen? They looked at me like I was a slow or something. Milos, Janos, Zoran and Milo sat there smiling and said nothing. That idiot Alexander laughed like an elk. I still don’t understand how the hell he got invited… But that’s the thing: Europeans not only don’t know the answer to this fundamental question, they consider its very articulation to be irrelevant! That’s what it’s come to. So what does truth mean to them? Only one thing: today’s benefit. Nobody’s interested in tomorrow at all. The fu-ture of Eu-rope!’ he beat his fist against the table. ‘It doesn’t exist for them. There’s only the present. And for me and my country, it exists. It exists!’
He turned his tarry-eyed gaze out the window, then fell silent, nibbling at his manly, imperious lips. Valeria stopped chewing and froze with her fork raised in her hand.
‘Three days ago, when I was told that Valeria was playing the Scotch Game instead of the Boar’s Gambit, I couldn’t believe it.’
‘Mr. President…’ the girl began to speak, but he raised his hand, and she fell silent.
‘I couldn’t believe it. Couldn’t belie-e-e-eve it!’
He fell silent again. Took a sip from his glass. Sighed.
‘You remember our first meeting?;’
‘How could I forget, Mr. President?’
‘Back then, you were…’
‘Nine and a half.’
‘Nine and a half. Your coach, our beloved Bogdan, may God rest his soul, brought you to me after the children’s tournament. And said these fateful words: Mr. President, I bring you the future champion of the country and the world. How clearly he saw your future!’
‘He was a great man.’
‘A great man! And then he said the most important thing: Valeria can already play blindfolded. I looked at you – a chubby, little round-faced thing from a mountain village, she should’ve been playing with kids, like, with baby goats. But she was playing chess. And she could already play blindfolded! I’ve adored chess for my whole life, but I’ve never been able to play blindfolded. This gift wasn’t given to me! But it was given to you by God when you were a child.’
‘Khvala Bogu…’ she said in her native language.
‘Yes, thanks be to God! Khvala Bogu! And khvala Bogdanu as well. He raised you, taught you everything you need to know to be a pro. And you became a pro. What a pro! The way you smashed Anand! The way you thumbed your nose at that musketeer Morozevich! The way Carlsen furrowed his brow at the Blitz Olympiad, right? The knight moves to h6, check, a pawn takes it, the bishop moves to h6, the queen takes it, and checkmate, oh great Carlsen! They’re gonna write about that one in the textbooks!’
He stood up, walked across the dining room, turned sharply, walked over to the girl sitting at the table, and put his palms onto her shoulders.
‘Our country is small and only somewhat beautiful. There are plenty of countries like it in the world. And every one of these countries has something besides mountains, forests and lakes. The Danes have medicine and wind turbines, the Finns have cream and Nokia, the Germans have Mercedes and beer, the Swedes have Volvo and Absolut Vodka, the Swiss have banks and watches, and the Hungarians have… well… goose and hot springs. And we have chess and pigs. It sounds funny, huh?’
He looked down on her face from above.
‘It is funny! Chess and pigs! It was funny. Seven years ago. But they’ve stopped laughing now. Our pork is the best in Europe. In comparison with our pork, the German stuff is rubber. And there is a huge wait on the internet for our decorative pigs. There you go! And as for chess…’
He walked over to the window with a sigh.
‘Nobody’s ever helped me in life like chess has. My dad died young. I never got along with my mum because of my stepfather. At sixteen, I ran away to sail the seas. Thankfully my sister taught me how to play chess. And chess has been with me ever since. It’s my shield and sword! I play with my friends and on the computer, I analyse the matches of the great grandmasters. I invest money in our national chess federation, which has already made itself known to the whole world. And I invest in you, Valeria, our chess queen. I recently asked that the figure of how much we’ve spent on domestic chess in the last ten years be calculated. Two hundred sixty-three million euro. That’s a lot for such a small country. But we’ve made great strides. And you’ve achieved tremendous success. You’re the flagship of our nation’s chess. Then, suddenly, I find out…’
‘Mr. President!’ Valeria cried out. ‘I didn’t play the gambit because…’
‘Hold on! Don’t interrupt the President!’
He raised his wide, short-fingered hand in warning.
‘When I found out that Valeria, our invincible Valeria, at the decisive match of the World Championship, when I find out that she abandoned her superweapon, abandoned our, I’m not afraid to say it, national gambit, our nuclear bomb, I… just… lost the ability to speak… Yes! I was struck dumb!’
‘Mr. President, if you’ll just allow me to explain…’
‘No! I won’t allow it! She wants to explain! It’s impossible to explain it logically! A match is in progress. A real tense one! The whole world’s watching. Four-four. The last two games remain. You’re playing as white. You’re on your way up. In the last match, you smeared Li against the wall with the Sicilian Game. You’re white. You gotta finish her off, then have a draw in the final game – then you’ll be the queen of chess once again! And the whole world will be at your feet!’
‘But Mr. President…’
‘Stuff it!’ he raised his hand sharply.
She fell silent, then he began to walk quickly past the windows, looking out of them as he did.
‘She wants to explain, you see… Everything can be explained. Lame Mirko, the guy who organised last year’s putsch, he was prepared to explain everything too. Hitler could explain everything. And the euro-retards who imposed sanctions on our country, they could explain everything too, those fuckin’ pettifoggers… Words, words. They’ve lost their value, trampled down by the bureaucrats and faggots of the world. Nothing lies behind these words anymore. But something stands behind deeds!’
He squeezed his fist and thrust it toward the window.
‘Deeds! Deeds are decisive, my darling chess queen. You proved it yourself when you first played the Boar’s Gambit. You were the one who made the discovery! Everyone shall always remember that day, the 3rd of August. Playing against Kosteniuk: d4 d5, Cg5 Cf5, e3 c6, c4. What’s this? Where’d it come from? Out of what dusty chests? You’d never played this opening before!’
‘Never! And Kosteniuk is puzzled. What’s this? Five more moves and the whites lose the knight without any compensation. Is Valeria bluffing? Did she not get enough sleep? The world froze. Then suddenly – e4!!! And the world gasped. The knight turned out to be a trap. And the Boar’s Gambit turned out to be INCREDIBLE!!! And you’re the one who created it. How brilliant it was! Because it coincided with the enchanted successes of our national pig breeding. A certain kind of mysticism is always with me. That August we squeezed the Germans for the first time. Our hogs started to get a leg up in Europe. Their supermarkets opened their doors to us. Euros flowed into our bank accounts. Take that euro-demagogues!’
He thrusted his fist toward the window once again.
‘And I realised – this was a fateful sign. The Boar’s Gambit and pig breeding. Two balls into a single pocket! There you go! And you began to play the Boar’s Gambit. To play and play… I hired two new coaches for you, the powerful Shlomo and Boris, they weren’t cheap, I gotta say, but you needed help by way of theory, to be reinforced, this new gambit needed to hold up. And it did. And it wasn’t just broads you smashed, but guys too. Grand Grossmeisters! You hauled them out to the chess dump dashingly. You were a bulldozer, an iron boar! And you cleared your own way to the crown. And became the queen. And that was that! The throne was yours! Of our country too. The global press was stunned: Valeria’s riding the boar! Do you remember the cover of Der Spiegel? Oh, how the people rooted for you! How many gifts you received from simple people. And from the President, the queen received a castle in the mountains. And not the worst castle ever, huh?’
‘I’ll always be grateful to you… always…’
‘Jee, thanks!’ he grinned angrily.
He clapped violently.
Then sighed and glanced out the window, biting his lip.
‘You reigned for three years. You thrashed everyone at tournaments. Increased the glory of our country. And now? To defend the crown, you had to win a single game. To let the boar loose on the Chinese woman. It would’ve crushed her! She’d just lost while playing as the whites. And you suddenly play… the Scotch Game. The wretched, toothless, foolish Scotch Game! In comparison with the boar, it’s like some kinda bunny rabbit. A lousy sheep. You played the opening like a schoolgirl. And, well… she wiped the floor with you. And you choked during the last round too. Totally. Drowned in a Chinese toilet. Pizdets, as our Russian friends say. Your crown fell.’
‘I had a spiritual crisis, Mr. President.’
‘I’m always having one,’ he pronounced, glancing gloomily out the window. ‘All of my family and friends’ assets are frozen in the West and in the States. I can’t fly to Nice or Sardinia anymore. Sure, I can go to the Crimea. But there, pardonnez-moi, turds bob in the waves… Sanctions… And now your crown has fallen. Tomorrow, they’ll impose an embargo on our pork… but so what? She’s having a spiritual crisis, you see…’
He grinned, put his hands into his pockets, and walked over to her.
‘Why the hell did you have to have a spiritual crisis during the decisive match?’
‘Well…’ she sighed, her bosom heaving. ‘Something happened to me.’
‘You fell in love with some dude?’
‘Thanks be to God… Marushka’s still tender with you?’
‘She flew to you in Oslo, right?’
‘Yes… she did…’
‘Did it feel good?’
‘Then why the shit did you fuck it up so bad?!’ he growled, pushing her head away.
She bent over, covering her face with her hands.
‘To fuck up everything, absolutely everything, in one fell swoop!’ he threw up his hands. ‘Ten years of work! Ten years, huh?!’
She fell silent, hiding her face, and bracing for a blow. Poking his finger into her shoulder angrily, he walked over to the windows, looked out of them, then returned to his seat, poured himself some more champagne, drained his glass, and flung it violently against the window. Shards flew everywhere.
‘A spir-it-ual cris-is!’
Standing there for a moment and breathing heavily, he stuck his hands into his pockets, swayed, then pronounced:
Valeria sat there frozen.
‘I said dri-i-i-ink!’ he hissed.
She straightened, picked up her glass, and took a drink.
‘And tell me what happened. What the hell kinda spiritual crisis you had.’
Clutching at the glass with two hands, she began to speak:
‘On that night… the night before the match… I… I dreamed of…’
She fell silent.
‘I… dreamed of… an angel…’ she pronounced in a trembling voice.
‘It was… it was all…’
‘Was it shining? Then that was Lucifer. He’s always shining.’
‘No, the angel wasn’t shining. It was like an ordinary human. And all just… all good…’
‘Yes. All just all good…’
She began to sob and weep.
‘Quit your wailing!’ he hissed.
She did, her shoulders still shuddering.
‘What do you mean “all good”?’
‘Well… it was made of good.’
‘From, like, gold or something?’ the President grinned.
‘No, it was a human. But this person was made out of… good. From molecules of good, from atoms of good, all, all… all out of that…’ she shook her head. ‘I could immediately feel that it wasn’t like all of us. It… it was good. Not that it was good, but just… it was good. Which is to say… just all, well, entirely… well, like a stone, so to speak, if a stone were just all good. And it was made of good…’
She fell silent, then shook her head.
‘Well, keep talking… keep talking…’ he walked over to her.
‘And it… began to speak with me…’
She fell silent and hid her face in her hands.
‘And what did this goody two-shoes say?’
She shook her head.
The president grabbed her shoulders cautiously.
‘Calm down, tell it to me calmly.’
‘What the hell is this?’
‘It’s hard for me to retell it.’
‘Because… it was talking about you.’
‘And what did it say?’
She fell silent. The President touched her gently on the shoulders.
‘Don’t be afraid – speak.’
‘It said…’ she began to speak in a broken voice, ‘that you’re… a terrible person.’
She hid her face in her hands. The President stood there in silence with his hands upon her shoulders.
There was a pause.
‘And what’s so terrible about me?’
‘You kill people.’
‘I kill our country’s enemies.’
‘You steal from the country.’
‘I mean, you could’ve read about that in the newspapers even without the angel…’
You dissolve people in acid.’
‘They wrote about that too… what else?’
‘You… you eat people.’
‘Muckrakers wrote about that nonsense too…’
‘You worship the buttery cudgel.’
The President froze. His face seemed to have turned to stone.
‘What do I worship?’ he asked quietly.
‘The buttery cudgel.’
He grinned nervously and muttered something. Took his hands off her shoulders, put them into his pockets, and walked over to the windows. Stood there for a moment.
‘And what does all of this nonsense have to do with the Boar’s Gambit?’ he pronounced, glancing out the window at the park.
‘The angel said that if I want to save my soul, I shouldn’t be your chess queen anymore.’
The President laid his hand onto the bulletproof glass and chewed at his lips.
‘That’s why you fumbled both games?’
He drummed against the glass with his sturdy, stubby fingers.
There was another pause.
‘Let’s go,’ he pronounced. ‘I wanna show you something.’
He walked over to her, grabbed her by the forearm, and raised her up from her chair.
‘Are you gonna kill me?’ she muttered as she got up.
‘Of co-o-o-o-o-o-ourse!’ he growled. ‘I’m gonna kill you, eat you, and leave no bones behind. Let’s go, you little fool…’
He led her over to the dining-room doors, which opened on their own. Two guards were standing behind the doors and Stefan was sitting on a sofa, his legs crossed and his face buried in his smartphone. He immediately leaped up when he saw the President.
‘Let’s go, let’s go…’ the President put his arm around Valeria.
They moved through the hall of national carpets and tapestries, then passed through an enfilade. Stefan and the guards walked behind them.
‘In our virtual era, the masses absolutely feed on rumours,’ the President spoke up. ‘Rumours, gossip and speculation. Especially when it comes to rulers. I mean, they wrote that Trump stayed at the Four Seasons in Moscow, laid some hookers out on the bed naked, and pissed all over them. Real cute, huh? And, as for Putin, they wrote that he drinks the blood of a black dog on Saturdays.’
Having passed through the enfilade, they walked up to an elevator. The President made a sign to the guards and they fell back. Stefan called the elevator. The doors opened up onto its luxurious Art Nouveau interior. The President, Stefan and Valeria got in.
‘Let’s go to the Underworld,’ the President ordered and Stefan pressed an amber-encrusted button with the number -2 on it.
The elevator moved smoothly downward. The President’s eyes met with Valeria’s swollen gaze.
‘You should know everything about your President. Know it first-hand, as they say.’
The elevator stopped.
They emerged into the space of a basement. Everything was made of concrete here: the walls, floor and ceiling, with no carpets or decoration. Only square lights on the ceiling. The President was the first to get out and Stefan and Valeria followed after him. He approached a steel door with a small rectangle at its centre. The rectangle was lit up with matte light. The President put his right palm to it. The door moved off to the side silently, opening up a dark space in which a light suddenly flashed forth.
The three of them entered the room and the door closed behind them. A black coffin stood in the middle of the concrete space, slightly larger than a normal coffin. A black remote control with three buttons was on the coffin’s lid.
‘Your goody two-shoes told you that I dissolve people in acid,’ the President pronounced, walking up to the coffin and picking up the remote control. ‘He was telling the truth.’
The President pressed a button. The lid of the coffin began to rise slowly. The inside of it was made of glass.
‘No!’ Valeria cried out and rushed toward the steel door, screaming and thrashing her hands against it. ‘No! No! No-o-o-o-o!’
Stefan and the President looked at her in silence.
When she was done screaming, she slumped down to the floor powerlessly, her entire body trembling, repeating something like an incantation in a dull voice that came from her depths:
‘No… no… no…’
The President walked over to her and squatted down.
‘Listen, what’re you doing? You really that dumb?’
She muttered her ‘no’ once again.
‘Hey! Queenie!’ he took her by the hand.
She was shaking.
‘Queeniiiiie…’ the President whispered in her ear. ‘What’s with you? Are you a little girl? How old are you?’
‘No, no, no…’ she muttered.
‘Valeria,’ he patted her on the back, ‘my darling Valeria, I dissolve the enemies of the state in this bathtub – dangerous and merciless criminals. This bathtub has noth-ing to do with you, your chessy majesty. Calm down, pull yourself together, and stand up.’
She was still shaking her head.
‘Stand up, stop making a fool of yourself!’ he tugged at her arm.
Calming down gradually, Valeria stood up slowly, supporting herself with her palms against the steel door.
Stefan and the President were standing next to the open coffin-bath.
‘Come over here, don’t be afraid!’
Barely able to manipulate her plump legs, she walked over.
‘In this coffin here, Lame Mirko met his fate after staging his putsch a year and a half ago. For the suppression of which euro-bureaucrats and the States imposed sanctions on me. A warlike general who fought for the liberation of the Balkans from what remained of the communists and, by the way, my close friend. I always trusted him. And he suddenly decided to stick a knife in his President’s back. He betrayed me. And the country.’
Valeria was looking into the coffin-bath. Its lid stood up vertically and thick glass glinted inside of it. At its centre was a drain with a glass grate.
The President walked over and tapped at the bath with the toe of his shoe.
‘A mixture of hydrochloric and sulphuric acids. It dissolves a traitor in half an hour. And the traitor goes down the drain. When Mirko was lying here tied up and waiting for the acid, he wanted to explain everything to me. Why he’d hired three hundred cut-throats to seize the palace and disembowel the President. Why he’d persuaded 14 officers to take part in the putsch, for what reason a tank battalion was ready to move down the avenue. Y’know why? For the prosperity of our country!’
He laughed and slapped at his thighs.
‘That’s how it is! Everything can be explained. And everyone, absolutely everyone wants to explain themselves. Even a faggot who rapes kids. He’s all ready to explain everything to the court too. Victims of circumstance, motherfucker! And when I sent these putschers to the other side and put their accomplices in jail, our euro-buddies asked me to explain – why, Mr. President, did you act with such an excess of cruelty? Or when I closed our borders because of Covid – a year and a half? Isn’t that too long?’
He sneered and began to pace around the room.
‘Those iron-assed fucks… they decide everything now. But they can’t get to me! No way!’
He raised his fist. Then pressed a button on the remote control and the lid began to go down. Walking over to the door, he put his palm to it and it slid off to the side.
‘Let’s go, Queenie, I wanna show you something else.’
Stefan and Valeria left the room.
The three of them got onto the elevator once again.
‘Press -4, Stefan. When the acid started flowing, Mirko ceased trying to explain himself, and screamed out that he knew where Attila’s gold was buried. To which I replied: you’re not gonna strike us Dacians dumb with gold. The Romans came to us for gold. After the suicide of King Decebalus and our conquest by the Romans, Dacia flourished precisely because of its gold mines – you remember our history, right?’
‘You’ve gotta know your history,’ the President pronounced seriously.
The elevator began to descend and soon stopped. They got out into the semi-darkness of the space of a cave. Here, everything was hewn forth from natural stone, a rough vault loomed up above them, and electric torches protruded from the walls, burning with reddish light.
The President walked forward along a cave passage and Stefan and Valeria followed after him.
‘The Romans exported our gold, but there was so much of it in the mountains that the Dacians drank from golden cups and golden trinkets dangled from our women. Then Attila sacked Rome. And a new era began.’
The passage led into a spacious cave. On the uneven floor lay a huge cudgel, as tall as three men, made of very old, blackened wood. Expanding out from its handle, it ended in a bulbous knob from which seven embedded cobblestones protruded. The cudgel gleamed greasily.
‘This here’s the buttery cudgel. Our progenitor, the giant Levog, the grandson of Suttung, he who came from Jotunheim to our mountains, made it from a sacred oak. With this weapon, he protected the mountains from tribes of savages. He lived for three hundred and forty-nine years and bequeathed this cudgel to our ancestors as a symbol of freedom and greatness. When he was buried, oil began to ooze forth from the club. It still oozes forth to this day. I rub my chest with it every morning. You should know this oil. Remember my gifts to you for your twentieth birthday?’
‘I remember,’ Valeria pronounced, glancing at the cudgel.
‘Among various other cosmetics, there was a bottle of oil. Without a label.’
‘I forgot it back in Ulan-Bator… at my hotel…’
‘At the speed chess tournament?’
The President sighed, nodded, and smacked his lips together resentfully.
‘Too bad… This oil gives one strength to overcome hardship. To struggle.’
He fell silent. Though damp, the cave was filled with a pleasant and buttery scent.
‘And I actually do worship Levog’s cudgel,’ the President pronounced. ‘When black clouds gather up over our country, when calamity knocks at our door, when it becomes necessary to fight evil, I come here, get down onto my knees, kiss the cudgel, and ask it for strength. And it gives me strength. Always! It gave, gives, and shall give. I owe all of my triumphs to the cudgel, to its strength, to its sacred oil…’
He fell silent, then continued.
‘You lost your crown. But you haven’t lost your gift. It’s in your power to win back the crown, to regain your prestige, to return the joy to all the lovers of this great game in our country, to those who’ve been worried sick about you. I was told that two elderly people even died after you lost to that Chinese lady. Valeria! You’ll get back your crown and be our queen once again. And you’ll begin to play with renewed vigour, like no one’s ever played before. The chess world will gasp. And not just the chess world. All you need to do to win is to kneel before the great club of Levog, to bow to it, to kiss it, and to ask it for the strength to win. And it’ll all come to pass. All that which is bad, weak and petty shall blow away like smoke. All of your fear and dread will go away. You’ll come out of here a changed person – strong, joyful and free. Believe me, believe your President who’s always loved you like a daughter.’
Valeria looked at the cudgel. The President came closer to her and looked her in the eyes.
‘I’ve never given you ill counsel, my child. I’m an experienced individual who’s been through many trials. Our country’s going through a time of troubles right now. After the failed putsch, the euro-bureaucrats rose up against us. They want to make outcasts of us, to stifle us with sanctions. Our businessmen are already complaining about the downturn in investments. Food prices have crawled up. Internal enemies have come back to life. We deprived them of the Internet and cut off the dragon’s head. But it has other heads too. Those who’ve emigrated support them. And not just financially. Weapons, communications equipment, explosives – all of this is confiscated by our security service at the port and at the border. Not long ago, a swarm of superdrones were intercepted in the mountains. They were all programmed to hunt down the President. Personally! And they were the newest of superdrones – outwardly indistinguishable from crows. This murder was flying here to attack and shoot me. To inject me with the newest of poisons, pretty much like the oh-so-nasty Novichok. Another drone that looked like a crane was to spray poison over my hunting lodge in the mountains. It was shot down by my snipers. To put it simply, Valeria, we’re surrounded. This is a very serious situation. Very.’
He fell silent and the nodes of his cheekbones throbbed outward.
‘When it rains, it pours, as they say. The putsch, the sanctions. And now you losing the crown.’
He embraced Valeria around the shoulders.
‘We need to raise it up, Valeria. And in order to raise it up, let all of us here standing before the great cudgel of Levog join hands, get down onto our knees, and ask the cudgel for the strength to return your crown. Then everything shall come true. You’ll vanquish everyone! As soon as you get the crown back, a lotta euro-bureaucrats’ll shut up. Our friends all over the world support us and they have influence over the international community. And the wave of sanctions shall cease.’
He took her by the hand.
‘Stefan,’ he called out and Stefan gave him his hand.
‘No!’ Valeria pulled her hand away from his violently.
The President froze.
‘I won’t kneel before the cudgel,’ Valeria spoke up in a trembling voice.
‘You don’t want to help your country?’
‘I can’t worship a cudgel.’
‘You don’t want to help your President?’
‘I can’t worship a cudgel.’
‘Because I worship Jesus Christ and Mary the Mother of God.’
The inside of the cave became silent.
‘One mustn’t impede the other, my child. I go to the cathedral on holidays. Together with my people. I sing along with the organ.’
‘I won’t worship a cudgel,’ Valeria said, then sighed and added firmly, ‘I won’t get on my knees before that cudgel.’
The President’s face became gloomy and seemed to age. He averted his eyes from Valeria’s face. His tense gaze came to rest upon the cudgel. The cobblestones embedded in it glistened with oil.
Stefan stood up, glancing sideways at the President.
There was a long pause. Finally, the President sighed.
‘OK. We’re all free people. It’s your decision. And you’ve made it. Stefan, take Valeria upstairs and order that she be taken home. To her mountain castle. Farewell, former queen.’
Valeria turned relievedly and headed for the elevator. Stefan followed after her.
The President was left alone in the cave.
He stood there for a long time, chewing at his lip.
Then got down onto his knees before the cudgel, closed his eyes, and carefully brought his face up to the dark, time-devoured wood, and kissed it.
On that same evening, the President convened the Grand Chess Council. It always met in a dedicated room of the presidential palace. The walls of the hall were decorated with chess symbols and mosaic portraits of great chess players, on the ceiling was a detailed baroque painting: in the heavens, surrounded by angels carrying radiant chess pieces, falcons and swifts, a huge, winged boar with golden tusks and covered in a checkerboard pattern soared. All sixty-four members of the GCC, including the President himself, were seated at a round table. Among those gathered there were members of the government, public figures, cultural movers and shakers, military men and chess players. There were no women in the GCC. As soon as everyone was seated, the President began to speak.
‘Gentlemen! I’m sure the melancholy dispatch has already reached you: we’ve lost our chess crown. But there’s an even sadder piece of news: Valeria, our invincible queen, our chessy Jeanne d’Arc, has decided to no longer fight for the title of world champion.’
He fell silent. And an indignant murmur immediately filled the hall. Those gathered looked at each other in bewilderment and remarks of surprise and resentment made themselves heard. After waiting for a moment, the President raised his hand. Everyone fell silent.
‘Yes, my friends. You heard right. We no longer have a queen and nor shall there be one in the coming years. That’s how things’ve played out. This is the objective reality that must be reckoned with. A reality that there’s just no getting around while riding a lame mare. There’s no queen! That’s it! Finita! So let’s just forget our past triumph. It happened and that oughta be enough. Now it’s just part of chess history. Valeria’s image shall have a place on this wall next to other world champions. The queen is to hang here. It’s all in the past now. And we need to look to the future. And not just in the realm of chess, alas! For, our present is troublesome, as all of you know well. Damn troublesome! Never has our country been under such siege. We’re being hounded like a werewolf. Besieged on all sides. Hounded because we rallied and defended our statehood and routed the putschists. Moreover, they’re not just hounding some fragment of the Soviet empire like Belarus or Ukraine, but us, a civilised European country with a great history and an ancient culture. I guess the euro-bureaucrats don’t give a shit about our history.’
He fell silent, clasped his hands together, then continued.
‘I’ve told you many times that I owe all the best things in my life to chess. It taught me everything! Hierarchy, choosing your priorities, strategic planning, tactical strikes, the ability to defend what would seem to be a hopeless position when you’re really in the shit, and, finally, the ability to wait it out – that’s everything this great game taught me. It’s a model of the world, a model of our crazy and wonderful life. I’ve shared this love as much as I could with my people and they’ve shown me great confidence in electing me President four times. But I can’t just lock away my love for chess in a chest, goddamn it! Chess clubs in every city, chess schools even in distant mountain villages, three chess boarding schools where talented children live and grow, becoming future Grossmeisters and world champions, chess evenings, quizzes, talk shows… Even a chess channel on our national networks, one watched by millions of people in and outside of our country. The channel’s just awesome! Brits, Americans, Germans – everyone’s watching. Why? Because chess makes man more intelligent. This is axiomatically true. That’s why chess has already been the national sport of our state for nine years. So let’s assess our country’s current situation as chess players. Let’s assess our, so to speak, position. Impartially and objectively. We’re close to zugzwang. One more move and we’ll have to choose between bad and worse. But we have this move, which we must find and make. We’re not up to our necks in shit quite yet. It’s still possible not to get stuck in zugzwang. As the great Fischer used to say, there’s only one correct move in any given position. And, if you’re not just a dumbass, you have to find it. As the great Lasker once said: the threat of a strong move is often more important than the move itself.’
He paused once again, biting his lip.
‘And we do have one – one move,’ the President pronounced quietly, but firmly. ‘And it’s a strong move. A goddamn strong one!’
Everyone fell silent.
‘The queen is dead – long live the king!’ he cried out and threw up his hands.
‘Yes, my friends,’ he continued once everyone had calmed down. ‘We need a chess king. That shall be the strong move that allows us to win the game!’
‘Fantastic!’ the Minister of Defence exclaimed and everyone applauded.
‘Valeria made a breakthrough,’ the President continued enthusiastically. ‘She didn’t just become the best female player in the world, but also helped to create our country’s brand as a world power in chess. We’ve established ourselves as an intellectual powerhouse. We’re smaller than many European countries, but smarter too! Here’s to you brainiacs!’
He clenched his fist and shook it.
‘Our kids don’t jerk off their smartphones with dumb apps, but study the games of the great chess masters, they study openings, and, along with all that, they get acquainted with history, geography, geopolitics, literature – Zweig’s Chess Story, Nabokov’s The Luzhin Defense, and my book The Whites Are Winning Again are all on the national curriculum. We’re cultivating a generation of geopolitical intellectuals. Real cool ones! When I set sail for the world of Valhalla and Jotunheim, there’ll certainly be someone to replace me. Indeed, all of you will also be replaced by totally awesome intellectuals, geopoliticians and business pragmatists. A worthy generation! And our country will become the new Switzerland. And young people from all around the world will come to us to study and learn from our experience. And we’ll teach them the Boar’s Gambit!’ he cried out and laughed with evil victoriousness.
Everyone else laughed and applauded.
‘But, to make sure that happens, we need to think up a fast move – a totally awesome move. We must find and prepare our chess king to take the crown within the year. Three of our Grossmeisters and four of our most experienced coaches are sitting here with us. Istvan, Hussein, Boris, Slobodan, Brahim, Ivan, Hugo. You’re the best! I trust you like nobody else, but allow your President to put forward a candidate for the new king. And, yes, all of you know him! That’s why I didn’t have to think long, guys. It’s only natural, as we’re close with all of our most wonderful geniuses as if they were family. And there’s one kid who’ll really shake down the chess throne. Who’ll make those high-brow chess farts shit their pants! He’s awesome! And he ain’t a needle in a haystack! He’s Shabani Borsh!’
‘Good move!’ two Grossmeisters, three coaches, and a prime minister shouted out, almost as one.
Everyone began to applaud.
‘Of course!’ the President nodded with a smile. ‘After all, I’m no Christopher Columbus, guys! I didn’t discover jackshit! All of you know our Shabani. He’s taking strides in leaps and bounds. He’s a giant! A new Bölþorn! He became a Grossmesiter at fifteen! And he’s still only seventeen. This is the best age to conquer the chess Everest!’
Everyone applauded once again. The President nodded, looking his audience over with an approving look.
‘Let’s help the guy as we once helped Valeria. Gentlemen Coaches!’
The four coaches stood up.
‘I’m entrusting you with this matter of national importance. The decisive tournament in Rio will take place in five and a half months. The two winners will automatically qualify for the challengers’ tournament. To get to the tournament, Borsh has to increase his rating by almost a thousand points. That’s quite a task! A tough one! He has to play in three tournaments and win them all. Without fail! And you must help him.’
‘We’ll do everything in our power, Mr. President!’ Boris, the eldest of the coaches, replied.
‘You must do even that which is not within your power! The Boar’s Gambit must shine forth in a new way! There’s no other way, gentlemen! You don’t have the right to shit the bed on this one!’
‘We won’t shit the bed, Mr. President!’ Ivan replied loudly. ‘Shabani plays great.’
‘And he’ll play even better!’ Hussein added.
‘He’s on his way up, he’ll manage!’ Slobodan nodded.
‘We won’t let you down, Mr. President,’ the Grossmeister Zemir pronounced seriously. ‘We’ll share our brain fat with Shabani.’
‘Fantastic, guys! I didn’t expect any other answer. In terms of finances, you’ve got a blank check from the national bank, invite foreigners, computer scientists, analysts, magicians, fuckicians… whoever you want… Start working tomorrow. General Globo and Colonel Sheshen!’
Both stood up.
‘I order the state security service to do everything possible and impossible to get Shabani Borsh to the tournament in Rio.’
‘As you wish, Mr. President,’ replied the thin, grey-haired Globo.
‘Mr. President, we love chess so much that we simply can’t not obey your command!’ the round-faced, plump Sheshen pronounced with a smile.
‘Fantastic!’ the President banged his fist against the table. ‘Sit down.’
They took their seats.
‘The attorney general’s office!’ the President pronounced and the attorney general stood up.
‘Slavoj, you’re a chess master yourself, you play awesomely, better than General Globo and me combined. I order you to immediately provide legal support for this government project.’
‘Sir, yes sir, Mr. President,’ he nodded.
‘The saboteurs, bunglers, and assholes who put sticks between our spokes must be immediately arrested and brought to justice. Without mercy or delay! General Koroman!’
The Minister of Interior Affairs stood up.
‘I hope that there’re still free bunks in our jails and mountain camps after the putsch?’
‘If there aren’t, the putschists’ll make room – they’ll sleep in twos!’ the minister replied and everyone laughed approvingly.
‘I thank you. Now sit down.’
The President waited for everyone to quiet down, then continued in a calmer tone.
‘Gentlemen, I decided not to drone on about why and for what purpose we have such need of a new chess king. You’re all intelligent statesmen, you already understand. There’s no point milling the wind. And no time for it. Our days are numbered. As soon as the crown is ours, the hammer of sanctions shall crack. It’s as simple as two times two. Crack, then fall apart entirely. They’ll shit the bed and we’ll win!’
Everyone applauded, cries of approval rang out, but then the President raised his hand and everyone fell silent.
‘I’m glad that we still understand each other, my dears, otherwise none of this would be possible. After each one of our meetings, I’ve invited you to a traditional chess dinner, but I’m going to break that tradition today. The times have changed. ‘Tis no time for feasting! We must work, struggle and conquer, then we shall feast and celebrate. We’ll arrange our next dinner immediately after the conclusion of the tournament in Rio, if Shabani wins and qualifies for the challengers’ tournament, that is. I really, truly, really hope that he will. Then we’ll drink champagne and celebrate our victory to the max. And then, when he takes the crown, we’ll celebrate that as a whole country. If anyone knows how to celebrate, it’s us! Oh, we know…’
He fell silent.
Then suddenly clenched his fists and banged them against the table.
Everyone slammed their fists against the table in response.
The president knocked again.
Everyone knocked once again.
The President knocked.
‘To crush our enemies!’
‘To crush our enemies!’
‘To knock down walls!’
‘To knock down walls!’
‘To be victorious!’
‘To be victorious!’
He froze with his fists raised above the table, then began to speak quickly with his eyes fluttering shut.
‘To defeat, shatter, overturn, crush, flatten, crumple, turn to dust, disperse… Then to forget for all time!’
‘Then to forget for all time!’ everyone replied in unison.
The President fell silent, then began to mutter.
‘The buttery cudgel does everything righteously, its oil oozes forth, time passes.’
Everyone replied in unison.
‘The buttery cudgel does everything righteously, its oil oozes forth, time passes.’
The President put his hands down onto the table, sighed, then fell silent.
He passed his gaze across all those present with his strong-willed eyes.
‘If Shabani Borsh doesn’t win, I’ll have to dissolve the Grand Chess Council straight to fucking hell.’
He stood up and took a mute bow. Everyone knocked their knuckles against the table.
The President left the hall.
Dinner was served to the President in his own dining room. The walls of this circular hall were covered over in lilac silk and hung with nineteenth-century paintings, all of which depicted hunting scenes. An enormous crystal chandelier illuminated the hall and the cloud-painted ceiling with Diana reclining atop their vaporous surfaces.
The President was seated at a single table with a lilac tablecloth embroidered with flowers, upon which golden dishes, Meissen porcelain and crystal had been laid out. Baroque music was playing quietly. Three servants wearing lilac livery served the President.
Valeria’s brain was served first. A porcelain platter with slices of brain fried in corn flour was placed down onto the table, one servant squeezed lemon over them, then twirled a little wooden pepper mill above the plate. Another servant filled the President’s crystal glass with Ukrainian pepper vodka. The President jabbed up a slice of brain with his golden fork, placed it onto a lightly toasted slice of rye bread, drank the glass of pepper vodka, said ‘hoi!’, then crunched into the bread and brain, turning his gaze to the window as he did. The palace park was already plunged into darkness, but some of the old trees were beautifully illuminated. Once he’d finished chewing, the President made a sign to a servant. The servant filled his glass with Polish Żubrówka. The President used it to wash down a second slice of crispy toast with fried brain. The servant then filled his glass with Rhenish white wine. And served Valeria’s ears, fried to a crisp, on a small golden plate. The President drank a sip of wine, picked up his Chinese bone chopsticks, grabbed onto an ear with them, brought it up to his face, looked it over, then pronounced:
‘Ears were given to man so as to HARK…’
A small diamond earring and three piercing pins could be seen in the ear. The President put the ear into his mouth, crunched into it, and washed it down with wine. Spat out the earring and pins into his napkin. Then did the same with the second ear, which had neither earring nor pins.
Then a soup made from Valeria’s cheeks, lips and tongue was served accompanied by white wine from the Rhône Valley. The President ate the soup unhurriedly, alternating each bite with wine and looking at the illuminated trees. After the soup, a steak made of Valeria’s liver was served with applesauce and beetroot horseradish. With that, the President drank a glass of his own red wine made from grapes grown on a mountainside near his ancestral village.
Having refused desert in his traditional fashion (Valeria’s caramelised bosom filled with ice cream) and drunk a small glass of rakia for digestion after the meal, the President used a lilac napkin to wipe off his buttery lips, now red from his hearty dinner, stood up, then left the dining room.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Vladimir Sorokinwas born in 1955. He is the author of many novels, plays, short stories and screenplays, and of a libretto. Sorokin has won the Andrei Bely Prize and the Maxim Gorky Prize, and was nominated for the Booker–Open Russia Literary Prize. He lives in Moscow. Two books by Sorokin are coming out in English next year: a collection of short stories, Dispatches from the District Committee, and his infamous novel Blue Lard.
Max Lawton is a translator, novelist and musician. He has translated many books by Vladimir Sorokin and is also working with Jonathan Littell. Lawton is the author of one novel and two collections of stories currently awaiting publication and is writing his doctoral dissertation on phenomenology and the twentieth-century novel at Columbia University. He lives in Los Angeles.